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Giorgia Anile 0000319142 LSC Corpus Driven Analysis of U.S. Presidents' Acceptance Speeches: a chronological observation of language.

1.1 Introduction
In this paper we will analyse using the instruments of corpus linguistics and Systemic Functional Grammar the acceptance speeches declaimed by presidents of the United States from Kennedy in 1960 to Reagan in 1980. No conclusions will be made after the analysis, as we do not want to demonstrate something a priori; the only aim of this analysis is to investigate language and its features in this particular text type. The link between politics and language is, at this point, not arguable. Language constructs reality, and politics is without any doubt part of this reality. Not only; we could also say that politics is completely constructed by language and in language, and so a careful analysis of its language may lead to a deeper understanding of all the strata of meaning in the political discourse. As Baily (2005: p.1) said, politics is one of those spheres of institutional life in which language is largely, although not exclusively, constitutive of its actions It is also notable that a single text will never be as autonomous as to be considered a completely self sufficient discourse. In this particular case, politic discourse is rather the result of an assimilated process of intertextuality. Anyway, any analyst should be extremely careful in the interpretation of political speech as the only strong way politicians may construct themselves or as the only reason for their success/insuccess. Political discourse has a pivotal role in the way the politician's image and character is constructed, but is definitely not the only factor to consider. Many other aspects should be carefully analysed, and any generalisation is dangerous since, as Hasan (1985: p.13) says, an analysis is worthy of praise only when it is rigourous, its methods are retrievable and it can be replicated in any moment.That's the reason why no biased conclusions will possibly be made after our analysis, and only evidence will be offered to the reader, leaving any possible interpretation to the reader's cognitive capabilities.

Every single speech has been treated as a corpus which has been explored through a corpus processor, Unitex (; thanks to this processor the token lists of these speeches were extracted, and will be later analysed using the instruments of Systemic Functional Grammar considering it obvious that only lexical words will be analysed. It has to be said that the analysis of political discourse is not the main activity of Systemic Functional Grammar, but its instruments have shown their usefulness in investigating linguistic strata of meaning in political discourses. Both Corpus Linguistics and Systemic Functional Grammar are so considered rigourous methods capable of leading to a linguistic analysis which is nearly scientific, as these methods are based (among all other factors) mainly on quantitative analysis which leads to evidence. Thanks to token lists, which are ordered by frequency, we can quickly observe how words are distributed in the corpus, and this information can be useful for different purposes. These lists start with the most frequent items and continue down to the single occurrences. In a vaster portion of text even single occurrences may be significant. But in such short texts very low frequency words are definitely not interesting. Of course this consideration depends mostly on the purpose of our research; in this case only very frequent words are considered relevant. Not all the information is needed every time, hence it is important to be able to select (or, as Einstein said Not everything that counts can be counted, not everything that can be counted counts). For this reason, and because of space and time complications the token lists in this paper are not complete, and were transcribed only until occurrence number 8, considering that words with a very low frequency would not be significant as far as our analysis is concerned. Even if a complete list of what is inside the corpus should be published, in this occasion it is impossible to do it, and a choice had to be made about what to insert in the paper. Anyway, complete token lists will be presented, if required.

1.2. Corpus Creation

But what are the considerations that are relevant to the creation of a corpus? First of all it has to be decided what kind of corpus we're going to create, and the aim of our creation. It may be a general corpus, with its specific rules about how to be balanced,

or representative, or consistent; or it may be a specific corpus (and that is our case) where a sample of a specific part of the living language is concerned. Corpus linguistics is a very useful instrument in analysing huge portions of text, and corpus processors help us because the text is first analysed and then tagged into parts of speech; thanks to this system it is possible for us to look for a particular word working as a name, or a verb, or an adverb, and the corpus processor will give us all the occurrences of that word with that specific grammatical role. More generally, we could ask the corpus processor to look for a specific class of discourse: in this way the research would be extended to any word belonging to that class, would it be a verb, a name, an adverb etc. POS tagging is one of the most widely used types of corpus annotation and now it is the most common type. So, a corpus which is annotated for parts of speech is useful both for disambiguating words and for classifying the occurrences of word classes in a corpus (example: a very low frequency of verbs rather than a very high frequency of names; this could mean that in the text there is a high percentage of nominalization; a high frequency of nominalization may mean something in the economy of the text). In this way, any ambiguity is avoided. In POS annotation the text is divided into tokens. The process of defining legitimate words in a running text is referred to as word segmentation or tokenization (McEnery: 2005p. 35). So, to help distinguishing the different morpho-syntactic features of the words in the token lists , a colour was given to distinguish every different grammatical word. Here is the legend: Green= names Purple= verbs Red= deictics

It is evident that only significant words have been put in evidence; basically, only those words which acquire a specific meaning as far as political analysis is concerned were considered consistent for our research. So, words as applause or verbs as is were not considered because their role in the whole structure and economy of this analysis was not relevant.

Moreover, it is important to say that every grammatical class we considered in this analysis has a pivotal role in the economy of the text; if lexical words and the process of nominalization can offer evidence for a very low use of verbs and processes (and the low use of verbs and processes is supposed to mean something) also a high presence of deixis (and, more specifically, a high frequency of some specific deixis such as I rather than we , rather than you) can offer evidence from the pragmatic point of view. So, if in political speeches deictics are used in the first person plural (we, our, us) to include the interlocutors and to conceptualise identity, the occurrence of a different use of deictics can be considered as a marked form, and so it is consistent in order to explore different strata of meaning in the text. Anyway, there is simply no way we can define the existence of a political language (as well as poetic language, or advertising language), as there is no such thing; we may define a text as belonging to a particular sphere only considering its functions. According to Skopos Theory, formulated by Vermeer in 1970 and basically applied in translation studies, any analysis should give a pivotal role to the purpose of the text. Particularly in translation studies, knowing why a text has been written helps translators determining which are the methodologies to be applied while translating the text. Hasan says, about the definition of literature, that there is no way we can define a text a priori. Language in literature (as well as language in politics, or language in newspapers) can be defined only if the analysis aims at the exploration and discovery of how language works in a particular part of discourse. Basically, we should look at the language in the text, and not at the language of a text.

1.3 Corpus based and Corpus driven analysis

According to J. Sinclair, the beginning of any corpus study is the creation of the corpus itself (1991: p.1). Actually, the decisions we take about what is considerably consistent to be put in the corpus and what is not, control almost everything that happens. So it is utopia to think of a completely unbiased corpus driven exploration.

In the corpus driven approach we try to find explanations that fit evidence rather than adjusting the evidence to fit a pre-set explanation. In other words, often the corpus driven approach is compared to an intuition based approach; intuition is considered unreliable in judgements about phraseology, semantic prosody, pragmatic meaning and collocation. So none of these subject studies will be involved in this research, trying to be as unbiased as possible. Only the presence of some words rather than other words, and some expressions rather than other expressions, will be analysed. As a matter of fact, as a corpus won't show evidence about possibility (it only shows evidence about frequency) and cannot show anything more than its own content what we will try to do is to offer evidence rather than information. So the presence and frequency of these words that appear to be consistent and relevant in these political speeches will be analysed and used as a resource to re-construe reality that is, as it were, sometimes very far from the real evidence of the world.

1.4 Kennedy's Acceptance Speech: 1960

Let's give a quick look at language in Kennedy's Acceptance Speech in 1960. The most significantly frequent deictics are:

32 28 26

our we I

These are the deictics typically used in political speeches or, more generally, in those text where the addressee must be involved for some reason, creating a mutual commitment between the speaker and the listener. In particular in political speech, as Baily said, one will presumably find a high percentage of 1st person personal pronouns, indicating commitment and that typical involvement which cannot be absent in politics. Let's now analyse names and verbs. Verbs will be analysed according to transitivity and modality.

Lexical Words:

10 9 9 8

men nation future frontier


15 8 8

will shall can

modality: deontic: willingness modality: deontic: duty modality: epistemic: possibility

The first thing that jumps to the eye is that there is some coherence between names and verbs in the text: we talk about men and their possibilities: (can, shall); we talk about men, their nation and and their future (will). What is interesting is that no significant verbs are found in the text (considering the verb to be and to have as ordinary verbs in any text) except from verbs expressing modality (at various degrees).

1.5 Nixon's Acceptance Speech: 1968

In this discourse, as well as in the other, the most frequent words are deictics. No surprise that we found:

60 37 25 23

we I our We

No marked form, as these deictics are what we expect in a political speech. For what concerns lexical words, here are the most significant ones:

54 27 22 21 20 18 12

America world nation years time Americans country

Again, no surprises here when we talk about America, world, nation, years, time and so on: very general names that are expected to be found in a political acceptance speech of an american president. But then something happens: we find a series of names representing ideals and human values, which we haven't found in Kennedy's speech. Consider that during Nixon's presidency (so from 1968 on) the Vietnam war was in progress (in fact it started in 1964 during Johnson's presidency); so, the most frequent words are war, peace, order and respect, which occur 11 times each. There is objectively some sort of balance between the appearance of the word peace and its antonym, war.

11 11 11 11 9 9

war peace order respect progress history

Here are the verbs found in this speech:

27 14

will can

modality: deontic: willingness modality: epistemic: possibility

11 9

shall win

modality: deontic: duty transitivity: material process

Here again, basically all the verbs are expressing possibility, duty or willingness at some degree; the only real process is material (to win), where an actor and a goal have to be present to perform the action.

1.6 Nixon's Acceptance Speech: 1972

If we have a look at Nixon's acceptance speech in 1972 we note something different even in analysing deictics. Apart from the usual expected forms of first person singular/plural personal pronouns, some marked forms of deictics finally appear. For the first time we have you, with 30 occurrences, and your, with 15 occurrences. So the interlocutor is called directly in this speech as to involve him in some actions that have to be performed. This could mean a call for commitment.

76 66 63 30 30 20 15

I we our you us my your

Let's have a look at the lexical words we found:

46 37 32 23 23

America world peace people Americans

16 14 12 12 11 10 10 9 8

war years convention country fellow Vietnam President home arms

What jumps to the eye here is that for the first time until the beginning of our analysis we have less generalisation for what concerns human actors; in this speech we have two examples of more specific human actors: fellow and president, occurring 11 and 10 times each. This could indicate more involvement and commitment in the speech, as the more specific it gets, the more responsibility we have. Here are the verbs found in this speech:

25 23 21 13 10 10 8

can would will say made ask believe

modality: epistemic: possibility modality: epistemic: possibility modality: deontic: willingness transitivity: verbal process transitivity: material process transitivity: verbal process transitivity: mental process

Again we have verbs expressing possibility (only epistemic modality was found) and other verbs expressing processes (2 verbal processes, 1 mental process, 1 material process).

1.7 Carter's Acceptance Speech: 1972

Again we start our analysis looking at deixis present in the text: once more not

surprisingly we have first personal singular/plural pronouns, and one instance (the less frequent one) of a second person pronoun: you, occurring only 12 times.

56 37 32 29 17 12

our we I We us you

For what concerns names, once again we have very general actors; there is a high percentage of lexical words representing groups of human participants, and only one occurrence of a more specific name designing one person in particular: the President, occurring 12 times.

23 20 19 18 16 12 9 9 8

people government America time nation President year country party

Moreover, we have a very low presence of verbs (apart from expected auxiliary verbs such as the verb to be, or to have) ; we only have two verbs expressing possibility and willingness.

18 15

can will

modality: epistemic: possibility modality: deontic: willingness

1.8 Reagan's Acceptance Speech: 1980

We start again our analysis giving a look at deixis present in the text; as usual we find first person singular/plural pronouns, as the most frequent in the speech. What is interesting is that we have a first person possessive pronoun: my which may express some sort of commitment in the discourse. Then, we have 12 occurrences of a third person plural pronoun: them, which I would consider a marked form, considering the norm in this text type a strong presence of first person pronouns. And, finally, two 2nd person pronouns, one in the possessive form.

81 61 48 33 12 12 10 8

our we I us my them you your

For what concerns lexical words, in this speech we have quite an interesting stream of words;

38 31 17 14 13 12 12 12 11

people government world America years administration tax nation time

10 10 9 9 9 8 8 8 8

president leadership freedom lives values money energy problems state

After the usual series of very general words we find in political speeches (people, government, world, America) we finally start finding more specific lexical words, such as administration, tax, leadership: these are concepts which we can say are totally new in our diachronic analysis. Speaking about specific issues, such as taxes, money, energy, means that something in the rhetorical structure of the political speech is changing. We don't want to make conclusions as far as one isolated instance is concerned, but the different approach to lexical words in this political speech is obviously very different from what we've seen until now. In his speech Regan also speaks about problems, a brand new word (and a brand new concept) in our acceptance speeches. Another brand new word appears in Regan's speech: freedom. So, the evidence is basically that, in this speech, some new issues were explicitly treated. These issues were probably present also before Regan's speech, but what to mention or not to mention in a discourse is something which is really linked only to the speaker's attitude, and the message he presumably wants to transmit. Let's now observe the main verbs found in the speech:

32 15 8 8 8

will must believe trust make

modality: deontic: willingness modality: epistemic: obligation transitivity: mental process transitivity: mental process transitivity: material process

Again, here, we find new instances of verbs we've never met in our analysis. First of all, it has to be noticed that the most frequent verbs are very much into modality: will and must. Then we find some new verbs with very strong implications, which lead to a deep involvement and commitment of the addressee.


It is absolutely unreal to think that some general rules can be formulated after such a superficial analysis of the text. We should strongly deepen our knowledge of the corpus to be allowed to give something which we could refer to as truth. Anyway, all these speeches have their own peculiarities. Giving a look at them from Kennedy's in 1960 to Reagan in 1980 it is possible to investigate these peculiarities, trying to give a diachronic mirror of their structures and how they change in the time. Kennedy's speech was maybe the most traditional speech, for the use of deictics, for the choice of names and verbs to say. Generally, there is coherence between the various part of speech present in this text, but nothing really is distinguishing itself as far as linguistic analysis is concerned. In Nixon, once again, the use of deictics is still ordinary, the most frequent words are quite general ones, but then he goes on making explicit some concept which were not shown in the precedent speech; he talks about war, peace, progress, order and respect. The period was notably that of the Vietnam war. It is interesting to observe that war and peace have the same weight in the discourse as far as the quantitative economy of the text is concerned. Moreover, all the concepts he talks about have positive connotations, except for war, which is anyway surrounded by words expressing very positive values. In Nixon's speech, all the verbs were expressing modality at some degree, except one; we finally have a material process with the apparition of the verb to win, which occurs in the text 9 times. Four years later, in Nixon's speech of 1972 we have a marked use of deictics, as the President uses 2nd person singular/plural personal pronouns, maybe asking for commitment. For what concerns lexical words, after the usual stream of quite general words concerning people, nation and the world, we finally have an interesting use of the word war, which appears only 16 times, compared to peace which appeared 32 times,

so exactly the double. Moreover, what jumps to the eye is that we're getting much more into the specific: among the occurrences we find Vietnam, finally giving a concrete name to this war. For what concerns verbs, the most frequent ones are again involved in modality, epistemic and deontic at various degrees. And then we finally have a series of processes; in particular: 2 verbal processes, 1 mental process, 1 material process. This is quite a big change in what we've seen until now, as the only instances of verbs we found in these speeches were verbs expressing willingness, or possibility, at different degrees; the use of verbs expressing modality is, in my opinion, very appropriate in political speeches, especially of this type. During his acceptance speech, the president speaks about the future, about what will happen, what has to be done and how these changes would concretise. A massive use of material processes would probably be a very strong responsibility for a politician: these kinds of processes are very concerned with reality, and offer no interpretation to the reader. While a massive use of modality leaves the discourse open, only involving possibilities, with less responsibilities. So, for example, we find in the last discourse, Regan's one in 1980, another different way of using verbs: we still have the main occurrences as modality, with will and must, which anyway express the highest degree of possibility and obligation, and so are verbs pronounced by someone who will possibly take responsibility for what he says. And we also have a list of processes, 2 mental and 1 material, expressing very strong values such as trust and believe; verbs that let the reader come into the discourse which may be considered as the most efficient way to let the message arrive.


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4- VERMEER H., 1996, A skopos theory of translation TEXTconTEXT Verlag: Heidelberg. 5- SINCLAIR J., 1991, Corpus, concordance, collocation, (s.l.), Oxford University Press,